Pagels’ Beyond Belief

Although Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief
is subtitled The Secret Gospel of Thomas,
surprisingly little of the book is devoted to an explication, or even discussion, of that work. Instead, Beyond Belief
focuses on Pagels’ attempt to make Christianity more relevant to her own life and in doing so provides a fascinating history of early Christianity, a historical perspective that could only be provided by a biblical scholar.

Pagels explains her early dissatisfaction with her evangelical church and how that dissatisfaction led to her pursuit of a deeper understanding of the Bible:

Before long, however, I learned what inclusion cost: the leaders of the church I attended directed their charges not to associate with outsiders, except to convert them. Then, after a close friend was killed in an automobile accident at the age of sixteen, my fellow evangelicals commiserated but declared that, since he was Jewish and not “born again,” he was eternally damned. Distressed and disagreeing with their interpretation and finding no room for discussion I realized that I was no longer at home in their world and left that church. When I entered college, I decided to learn Greek in order to read the New Testament in its original language, hoping to discover the source of its power.

Strangely enough, this incident parallels my own turning away from religion in college when a religious person close to me announced that it was sad that President Kennedy couldn’t go to heaven because “he wasn’t a Christian.” I didn’t bother to point out that Catholics were “Christians” and that the Bible that her Protestant church turned to every Sunday for spiritual guidance had been largely determined by the Catholic Church. Instead, I merely took another giant step away from formal religion.

Unlike me, though, Pagels continued to find comfort in the church:

The drama being played out there spoke to my condition,” as it has to that of millions of people throughout the ages, because it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of fear, grief, and death while paradoxically nurturing hope. Four years later, when our son, then six years old, suddenly died, the Church of the Heavenly Rest offered some shelter, along with words and music, when family and friends gathered to bridge an abyss that had seemed impassable.

I must admit that at times I do miss the sense of community that my ex-wife found in her Baptist church, and I’m sure that if I had been able to subscribe to their beliefs I would have found considerable comfort in belonging to such a community.

Unlike Elaine Pagel, though, I have only the vaguest notion of the history of the Christian Church, particularly the early history. Perhaps if I had Pagel’s historical insights I would have sought out a church where I could pursue my own religious yearnings. Until relatively recently, I didn’t know that The Gospel of Thomas even existed. I certainly didn’t know that there had been a considerable debate between various early church factions over which Gospel offered the truest interpretation of Jesus’ message:

This research has helped clarify not only what John’s gospel is for but what it is against. John says explicitly that he writes “so that you may believe, and believing, may have life in [Jesus’] name.” What John opposed, as we shall see, includes what the Gospel of Thomas teaches that God’s light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone. Thomas’s gospel encourages the hearer not so much to believe in Jesus, as John requires, as to seek to know God through one’s own, divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God. For Christians in later generations, the Gospel of John helped provide a foundation for a unified church, which Thomas, with its emphasis on each person’s search for God, did not.

Starting here, Pagel summarizes the major debates that took place in the early Christian Church, showing the remarkable diversity that existed before the Nicene Council and explaining why John’s Gospel became the preeminent Gospel.

Pagels’ explanation of the doctrine that came to dominate most churches reminded my why I have spent much of my adult life looking for alternatives to Christianity even though I believe Jesus’ message of love for mankind is the most powerful message I have ever found in a religion. Like Pagel, I have never given up seeking spiritual enlightenment. In fact, much of my love for poetry stems from that search for in many ways, poetry has taken the place of religion, offering an alternative, and in some ways, superior form of spiritual exploration. Unlike Pagel, I did give up on Christianity:

When I found that I no longer believed everything I thought Christians were supposed to believe, I asked myself, Why not just leave Christianity and religion behind, as so many others have done? Yet I sometimes encountered, in churches and elsewhere in the presence of a venerable Buddhist monk, in the cantor’s singing at a bar mitzvah, and on mountain hikes something compelling, powerful, even terrifying that I could not ignore, and I had come to see that, besides belief, Christianity involves practice and paths toward transformation.

Although I have come closet to finding an acceptable alternative to Christianity in Zen Buddhism, I have never felt completely comfortable with it. Perhaps I was merely brainwashed in my childhood and have never been able to truly erase those mind tapes. But despite my intellectual attachment to Zen Buddhism and my own introversion, I am more drawn to the idea of commitment to others than I am to the kind of intellectual detachment Zen seems to demand. Pagels’ book has made me wonder if I shouldn’t investigate less traditional forms of Christianity in hopes of finding spiritual values that I can subscribe to:

What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions and the communities that sustain them — is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery. Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus’ words, to “seek, and you shall find.”

Pagels’ belief that there is room in Christianity for those who are “seekers” makes me wonder if I shouldn’t look for a “First Church of Thomas” because I suspect that I would truly be comfortable in such a congregation.

14 thoughts on “Pagels’ Beyond Belief

  1. Sounds like you might find something like what you’re looking for in Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hahn. Incidentally, the introduction is by Elaine Pagels.

  2. I suspect you’re right, Carlos. I already have a book by Thich Nhat Hahn waiting to be read, “Peace is in Every Step.”

    I’ll put Living Buddha, Living Christ on my “check out list”

  3. There are a few spiritual paths, today, that basically subscribe to similar concepts as offered by Thomas; one of which practices something called the Quan Yin Method (which is said to be essentially the same teachings that were practiced by Jesus and His followers). You can find info at – download the “Sample Booklet” to get an introduction. Good Luck

  4. I read over several of the pages you referred to, Denny, and doubt that this approach would particularly appeal to me.

    That’s not to say others might not find this a suitable community, but I’m certainly looking for a local community of similar souls not a mail-order religion.

  5. I was raised a Catholic, attended a Catholic seminary, and have attended church except for 1984-1994. I have always thhougt that it was odd that the Church hardly ever preaches the Sermon on the Mount. I also thought that Constantine wasn’t really helping the Church by making it official and by perhaps forcing, or at least encouraging, conversions. “Beyond Belief” explains these phenomena and points to what is missing: intuition, or epinoia. The Foundation of Human Understanding, Grants Pass, Oregon, is a place that I found in the 80’s that has helped point me toward Christian meditation, which I take to be a path to epinoia. The Church’s emphasis on the divinity of Christ gets in the way of our beocming holy as Jesus did.

  6. I am a grad student in Religious Studies and I am doing my thesis work on Thomas. I loved Elaine Pagels book but I was a little disappointed at how it didn’t really dive into the meaning of the text. Scholars are a tad afraid to do that because there just doesn’t seem to be enough to prove anything–they don’t want to engage in speculation. Each saying could mean SO many different things. But boy do I have my theories! Thanks for the review. You’re one of my kind!

  7. I’m very much a skeptical but still-committed Christian along Pagel’s line, but very influenced by Buddhism. I attend an Episcopal church and have quite a community of friends and fellow-seekers who haven’t disconnected their brains – in fact, we’re reading Pagel’s book together this fall. It’s too bad the dogma and no-questions-allowed presentation turned so many off in their youth and made them feel hypocritical or unwelcome – I left for years because of this. Now I find that most of what I need for both heart and mind is there – including priests who “get it” and are willing to talk freely and openly – but you have to give yourself permission to go beyond the traditional religious language and dogma. We need a new Reformation!

  8. I agree that we need another Reformation.

    One of my favorite sayings is that too many conservatives give Jesus a bad name by confusing the Old Testament with the New Testament and apparently forgetting that the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament.

    By the way, thanks for dropping by. I often stop by the Cassandra Pages site.

  9. I like your site, too, Loren, thanks! I think the point you make is a central one – a major focus of Jesus’s ministry was to bring a “new covenant” and get rid of the suffocating, misused, and corruptly-interpreted rule of Law. It was a simplification too: love God and love one another pretty much sums it up. These days I am often hard-pressed to admit I’m a Christian, with the church being co-opted by fundamentalists and conservatives who insist on dragging out bits of Old Testament law to justify their fears and prejudices. What’s happening in my own denomination is both heartening and appalling. I happen to know bishop-elect Gene Robinson a bit, so it’s all very painful, but it’s also a reminder that organized Christianity (including its official “doctrine”) is political, and has been from the very beginning.

  10. I have been reading Pagels book myself and found myself identifying with her. Although I am a skeptic I belong to a church. I cannot agree with everything my church expects me to believe but I very much like to be a part of the rituals and fellowship. I participate in a small group within the church that is somewhat open-minded to diverse ideas. I mentioned that I was reading this book and they have asked me to lead a group discussion on it. That’s going to be challenging for me as I am not very articulate or well-read on this subject

  11. I suspect that the hardest part of leading a discussion about this book is simply not worrying about leading a discussion, Bill.

    The book certainly doesn’t explore The Gospel of Thomas in any great depth, but instead focuses on the need for the church to be open to “seekers.” And it sounds like that is already where you are coming from.

    Good luck, but trust yourself (and some notes) and you should be fine.

  12. The old testament prophecied the coming of a messiah, particularly see Isiaih which speaks of “Unto us as child is born, unto us a son is give and the government shall be on his shoulder. And his name shall be called, councilor, the prince of peace, almighty God, etc. Sure seems like Jesus fills that bill. And makes me think he was the Son spoken of in that verse and also the Almighty God spoken of. Guess Pagel never read that, learned though she is.

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